Cambodia’s international national elections

[Published 24 September 2012 by the online Cambodia Herald.]

Here we go again. Clearly, an election is approaching in Cambodia, because the Sam Rainsy Party is campaigning vigorously, if unofficially. And, as so often in the past, it is doing much or most of its campaigning in foreign countries.

This might seem strange, but there is a logic to it. The fact is that the SRP can appear to be more popular with overseas elites than it is with Cambodian voters.

In Cambodian elections, the SRP usually polls between 20 and 25 per cent, going up or down a little depending on what other opposition parties are also competing. But in his latest “success”, Sam Rainsy has received unanimous backing from the Philippines Senate. No wonder Sam Rainsy prefers to campaign in Manila.

In a September 18 press release, something called the Asian Council of Liberals and Democrats

announced: “The Philippine Senate unanimously adopted resolutions last [sic] 17 September 2012 supporting the United Nations recommendations for the organization of the national elections in Cambodia and hailing the creation of International Parliamentary Committee for Democratic Elections in Cambodia (IPCDEC)”.

This is more than a little misleading. There are no “United Nations recommendations” for organising Cambodia’s national elections. There are some recommendations about some aspects of the elections from one UN special rapporteur, but this is probably the first time that Surya Subedi has been mistaken for the United Nations.

Also, the Philippine Senate seemed a little unclear about what the IPCDEC is. The resolution calls the IPCDEC “a group of parliaments” and gets its name wrong every time it mentions it.

The IPCDEC is the result of several “appeals” that Sam Rainsy has sent out calling on parliamentarians from other countries to interfere in Cambodian elections. The IPCDEC now lists a membership of 72 parliamentarians, which might seem impressive until you consider the number of parliamentarians who declined to sign up. Furthermore, 40 of the IPCDEC’s members are SRP or Human Rights Party members of the National Assembly or Senate.

Of the 32-strong “International” part of the IPCDEC, 21 are from Italy: 10 of the 630 members of the country’s Chamber of Deputies and eight of the 322 Senators, plus one current and two former members of the European Parliament. (According to what I was able to find on the internet, three of the 10 MP members have not been MPs since 2008.)

The IPCDEC has three members from the Philippines, including Senator Franklin Dilon. (He is the chairperson of the IPCDEC, so you would think the Philippine Senate would be able to get the group’s name right in its resolutions.) And eight countries are represented by a single parliamentarian: Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Scotland, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Japan.

Most of the Italian members of the IPCDEC are Radicals, a rather strange party that historically seems to have spent a large part of its energies on internal disputes. Aside from the Cambodian members, who are of course part of the opposition and therefore inclined to view any election that they don’t win as undemocratic, I don’t know much about the other members of the IPCDEC, except for one.

With friends like these …

The Thai member of the IPCDEC will be familiar to many Cambodians. He is Kasit Piromya, who was foreign minister of Thailand during much of the time when Thai troops were trying to seize Cambodian territory near the Temple of Preah Vihear. Of course, there is no reason that a Thai politician who wants to seize Cambodian territory cannot also be genuinely in favour of democratic elections, as long as they aren’t conducted in the territory being seized. So let’s have a quick look at Kasit Piromya’s democratic credentials.

Kasit was a leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy or “yellow shirts”, whose demonstrations against the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra helped to usher in the 2006 military coup. When the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party won the most seats in the 2007 election and formed a coalition government with several smaller parties, Kasit and the yellow shirts again decided to overturn the voters’ decision. Part of this effort involved escalating the border conflict. On October 14, 2008 (the day after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen demanded the withdrawal of Thai troops who had invaded Veal Intry) Kasit in a televised interview called Hun Sen “crazy”, a “slave” and a “gangster”.

Kasit was also a leader of the December 2008 yellow shirt occupation that closed Bangkok’s international airport for more than a week, an event which he told a British newspaper was “a lot of fun”. During the occupation, Kasit gave a speech indicating his friendly attitude to Cambodia by saying, “I will use Hun Sen’s blood to wash my feet”. As intended, the occupation resulted in the Thai military pressuring several small parties to change sides, and Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister. (After a police investigation, Kasit was charged with terrorism in regard to the airport occupation, but the Abhisit government eventually succeeded in having the charges dropped.)

Does the IPCDEC program for “democratising” Cambodia involve making it more like the situation that Kasit Piromya tried to create in Thailand?

The Philippine model

As far as I know, none of the three Philippine members of the IPCDEC have ever encouraged a military coup or advocated seizing Cambodian territory. Probably no member of the Philippine Senate has done anything like that either, although I don’t know much about Philippine senators. But that doesn’t matter; we have the testimony of someone who spends a lot of time in the Philippines that democracy is thriving there:

“We look up to the Philippines as a model of democracy, and we are very pleased that we are gathering overwhelming support to our cause from our Filipino parliamentary colleagues and friends”, Sam Rainsy said after the Senate passed the resolution on the IPCDEC.

This made sense: the Philippines had solved all of its problems of human rights and democracy, so of course it was only reasonable and generous for the Senate to share this accumulated experience with more benighted places. I decided to learn what I could about Philippine democracy in order to see what Cambodia can look forward to. Not wanting to be misled, I went to a source that is unquestionably friendly to the Philippines, namely the US State Department.

The last general election in the Philippines, held in May 2010, is discussed in the State Department’s annual human rights report on that country (available at http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/eap/154399.htm). Strangely, democracy in the Philippines seems not to be as peaceful as it is in Cambodia. According to the report, “The PNP [Philippine National Police] recorded 180 election-related violent incidents resulting in the deaths of 55 persons” in the period around the elections.

Of course the Philippines has a much larger population than Cambodia – about seven times as large. So if Cambodia is to live up to the Philippine model, everyone should try to limit next year’s general election to no more than around 25-30 violent incidents and eight deaths.

And at least the Philippine police could be relied on to track down the killers and protect citizens’ human rights – couldn’t they? Surprisingly, the State Department seems a little doubtful. “The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), an independent government agency, investigated 53 new complaints of politically motivated killings involving 67 victims during the year. The CHR suspected personnel from the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in some killings of leftist activists operating in rural areas.”

And there was more violence beyond the immediately political: “Vigilante groups, including those with suspected ties to state actors, were suspected of summary killings of adult criminals and minors involved in petty crime in major metropolitan areas. The Coalition Against Summary Execution recorded 74 cases of apparent vigilante killings in Davao City from January through October.” Davao City has a population of around 1.5 million – about the same as Phnom Penh. Would Cambodians be happy with a “model” in which vigilante gangs in Phnom Penh killed 80-90 people every year? Would they like to live in a country in which it was necessary to have a Coalition Against Summary Execution?

In Cambodia, as in most countries, there are undoubtedly many desirable improvements that could be made in the functioning of democracy. But inviting interference by people who know little about Cambodia – and may experience little democracy in their own country – is not likely to lead to improvement.

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